Great numbers of Hungarian immigrants came to the United States around the turn of the century. The wave of immigration from 1880 to about 1915 was called the ‘Great Economic Immigration’ for Hungarians, and it drew about 1.7 million Hungarian citizens, among them 650,000-700,000 real Hungarians (Magyars), to American shores. These immigrants came almost solely for economic reasons, and they represented the lowest and poorest segment of the population. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 halted mass migration, but by 1922 7,300 Hungarian-born Magyars had found their way to West Virginia. The exclusionary U.S. immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 pushed the Hungarian quota down to under 1,000 per year.
Many Hungarian immigrants came hoping to make money and then return to their home country with enough capital to make themselves into prosperous farmers. Few of them achieved this goal—25% of Hungarian immigrants returned to Hungary—and virtually all of them became unskilled or semiskilled workers in America’s bustling industries. They were the peons of America’s Gilded Age, who contributed their brawn to American coal mines and steel smelters, and who produced the mythical Hungarian American hero, Joe Magarac, who could bend steel bars with his bare hands. It was they who unwittingly created the negative “Hunky” image of Hungarians, which then was transferred to all of the East and Southeast European immigrants.
Michael Bartucz’ story is fairly typical: born in Debrecen, Hungary in 1879, he became a barber in the Hungarian Army, according to his grandson, James Nagy. When he read in a newspaper that he had been declared dead, he deserted a wife and the army and fled to the U.S. around 1900. With his uncommon name, he feared that he would be easily found out, so he changed his name to Charles Nagy. He became a coal miner in West Virginia but finally settled in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area.
Family structure was very important to Hungarian immigrants, and they created close knit communities with their churches and other cultural societies. For example, the Hungarian Evangelical and Reformed Church in Morgantown, WV offered Sunday school instruction in Hungarian between the two World Wars.
Hungarian immigrants were likely victims of exploitation: they were handicapped by language barriers, used to abominable working conditions and were usually willing to take almost any kind of work. Traditionally, Hungarians typically look down on government aid and very few Hungarians ever received handouts. Some Hungarians, totally unaware of the labor conditions in this country, were brought to the coal mining regions of West Virginia and Virginia as strikebreakers. Much hatred and violence was directed against them because of this.
Új Elore, a Hungarian-language labor newspaper based in Cleveland, published countless short stories and poems, starting in 1921, which conveyed the many hardships endured by Hungarian immigrant laborers. The stories were written about fictional characters, however, they were based on actual incidents related by the immigrants themselves.
There were short stories published about the mining towns of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where many of the Hungarians found initial employment. The writings conveyed the degradation of living in shabbily constructed company shanty towns, of having to work underground and breathing the soot and smoke of the mine. There were many other stories as well: of children who were orphaned due to industrial accidents and of young girls who worked in sweatshops under stifling, unhealthy working conditions for meager wages.